The future of your living room
How 8K, 360-degree sound and VR will take home entertainment to the next dimension
The living room has long been the heart of our households. Since the 1960s, it’s been the place we’ve gathered with our family and friends around a TV screen, bonding over a single common interest – entertainment.
Things have changed a lot in that time. Picture quality has been constantly improving, sound capabilities have expanded – even the content we watch has had to adapt. But take a glimpse into the future of home cinema, and we could be about to see its biggest changes yet.
ON THE BIG SCREEN
Part of that comes down to something quite simple: affordability. Flat-screen TVs have come down in price dramatically during their 20 years in modern production, which has meant the screen sizes we can afford to buy have got bigger.
Just five years ago, almost 90% of TVs sold in the UK were less than 43in in size. Market analysts NPD say that 23% are now 55in or bigger, with this number expected to increase further by the end of the decade.
A quick look at the screen sizes manufacturers are focusing on also tells a story of a big-screened future.
Only five of Samsung’s 16-strong 2017 TV range offer a screen size below 49in. If you want a 4K set, that drops to just two, and it’s a similar story across the rest of the industry.
“We’re certainly seeing a trend towards bigger screens, with particular growth in 55in and 65in screen sizes,” says the vision buyer for John Lewis, John Kempner.
“We’ve also seen 4K UHD become a minimum requirement for these bigger screens, too. When standarddefinition content was the norm, the image quality wasn’t good enough to go this big. But beautiful content just looks better, bigger.”
Of course, the problem with this is the amount of space we’re now having to find in our rooms for something that isn’t always in use.
More than ever, TV manufacturers are attempting to soften this blow using design. LG’s flagship Wallpaper screens are just 2.57mm thin and attach to your wall using magnets, while Samsung’s Frame TV actually looks like a picture on the wall – even displaying a selection of art when it’s not being used.
However, Paul White, European product manager for Epson, thinks projectors could well take advantage of this situation.
“The problem with TVs getting bigger is that when they’re off, they’re a large black rectangle that take up a big chunk of your living room. That’s difficult to hide and hard to get away from, because it’s a permanent fixture.
“I know a lot of TV manufacturers are trying to find ways to help TVs blend in through their design, but one advantage of projectors is they can easily be unplugged and put away, so it doesn’t have to be on show all the time.”
White adds: “The other big advantage of a projector is cost per inch. Once you buy your TV, that’s the size you’re stuck with. With a projector, you can have a 65in image for TV and go up to a 300in image for sports – you don’t have to buy anything else.”
Projector technology has long had a fight on its hands compared to the seemingly simpler setup offered by televisions, but White says that is starting to change.
“Laser technology in projectors is currently only available in very high-end projectors, but it will filter down. This offers instant power on and off, so it’s more like a TV, and offers three or four times the lifetime of a lamp-based projector, too, so it’s much more convenient,” he explains.
“However, the most interesting trend in projectors right now is ultra-short throw projection. It’s really gaining ground and certainly seems to be where the industry is heading.”
“ONE ADVANTAGE OF PROJECTORS IS THEY CAN EASILY BE UNPLUGGED AND PUT AWAY”
An ultra-short throw projector has benefits over standard projection since you can place it very close to the wall for fewer installation headaches, and still get a very large image.
It’s only been in the past couple of years that we’ve seen such technology becoming available in the consumer market, with the 4K HDR Sony VPL-VZ1000ES among the most advanced currently available.
It’s not Sony’s first punt at the technology though, with its first attempt coming 18 months previously. Even in that short amount of time, Sony has managed to reduce the projector’s physical size by 40% and more than halve its price, showing just how quickly things are moving.
Thomas Issa, Sony’s home cinema product manager for Europe, thinks this sort of projection may well be the answer for people wanting bigger images without the clutter.
“The VPL-VZ1000ES can sit almost unnoticeable in your home, just six inches from your wall, and yet offer the big images that projectors are known for, with the ease of use that keeps people buying TVs.
“It is expensive, but prices will come down. In 18 months, we’ve been able to bring the price down from £45,000 to £20,000. It’ll take time to get it down further, but I believe we will get there.”
WHAT’S ON NEXT
Plenty of talk about how we’ll watch TV then, but what about what we’ll be watching? Over the past five years, the industry has been abuzz with talk of 4K – a resolution that offers four times the pixels of full HD – but only recently has the breadth of content come along to really make it worthwhile.
And yet the industry is already looking ahead to 8K, with Japan announcing plans to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in the format.
“One thing is for sure,” Issa says. “The bigger the screens are, the more resolution you need. Of course, when you’re using 55in and 65in screens, 4K is great, but at 120in, you will see a difference with 8K.
“I believe the industry will get to a point where we see it in our homes, but it will take a lot of time. We’re only just seeing the real benefits of 4K, and that’s five years after it launched.
“I assume 8K will be similar – we’ll see the first consumer 8K devices in a few years but then the content will follow later, with upscaling technology to bridge the gap.”
The content we watch at home is changing, too – not just from a quality perspective, but how we watch it. Video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Video are booming, complementing more traditional TV programming, while the trend for second screens sees over 70% of us using another device such as a tablet or smartphone to supplement what we’re seeing on our TV.
But there’s something bigger on the horizon. Rather like 4K, virtual reality (VR) is something that’s been gaining ground in the past few years, and with both availability and content now ramping up, it’s becoming a real at-home consumer experience.
A lot of the focus is currently on gaming, but it seems there is a real potential for it in home cinema too.
“The home entertainment of the future isn’t going to be as we know it at the moment,” says Dave Black, cofounder of Mixed Immersion, a London-based studio delivering 3D sound to VR experiences.
“It’s too linear, too 2D. Immersive, emotive experiences like those offered by VR are the future for home cinema, absolutely. Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Jon Favreau – all these big-name directors are going mad for VR because it immerses their audiences like nothing else. If this is where we are now, imagine where we’ll be in five years’ time.
“It’s a new challenge for film makers too – to work out how to tell a story in a 360º environment, when there are no cuts. Everything is a continual bit of footage. It therefore relies on clever storytelling and great scripting to keep your focus where it needs to be, while still giving you the freedom to explore your environment. It’s like immersive theatre but in a movie format.”
Already some of the biggest VR manufacturers are dipping their toes into VR cinema. For example, HTC Vive offers Vive Video, an in-house app that allows you to watch both 180º and 360º videos using your Vive headset.
“WE’RE ONLY JUST SEEING THE REAL BENEFITS OF 4K, AND THAT’S FIVE YEARS AFTER IT LAUNCHED”
The former creates a ‘big screen’ effect just like being at the cinema, but it’s the latter in which HTC predicts big growth over the next few years.
“All the major Hollywood film studios are experimenting with immersive film making, and as the installed base of VR headsets such as Vive grows, more content creators will invest larger budgets to serve the emerging market,” says Drew Bamford, head of HTC Creative Labs.
“From a technical standpoint, the next big breakthrough will be highfidelity volumetric capture of moving content [the capturing of a VR space by dozens of cameras so you can move in and around it, rather than just view it in 360º].
“The best way to create the illusion of true presence in a virtual world is to render 3D objects and scenes in real-time from the user’s perspective. Today, building this kind of content requires complex tools and processes, and a significant investment of time and effort.
“When this capability becomes more widespread, the video market will leap past our current offering of 360º spherical content to fully immersive dimensional content, in which users will be able to walk around and interact. That will likely be the inflection point that sets VR cinema on an exponential growth curve.”
But could we ever see a time that a VR headset replaces our TV? Mixed Immersion’s Black doesn’t think so.
“Two hours in a headset watching a movie probably isn’t going to happen. Most VR experiences are 10 to 20 minutes long, and that’s about right. Because you’re actually in the environment, it’s not something you can switch off from, so it’s much more labour-intensive for the brain, and I think a full movie of that would be quite tiring. I see it as much more of a complementary experience, a bit like bonus content.”
While the idea of VR in traditional movie environments is gathering traction, BT Sport is one of the first broadcasters to consider the potential of VR to supplement a live broadcast. Not only was its broadcast of the Champions League final shown in 4K HDR for the first time in 2017, but it also offered added VR content for users to explore, too.
“VR is about being there and feeling part of it,” says Jamie Hindhaugh, COO of BT TV.
“We’ve been running trials in it for about nine months, and I think we’re now offering something that’s really great. The important thing is curation. A 360º camera has a great novelty factor for about two minutes, but as broadcasters, we need to tell the story. For the final, we had 12 VR cameras to switch between, with live VR graphics and a separate VR commentary.
“Some people will watch the whole game that way, but I see VR as being about the highlights and key moments. To replay a goal up close, get a closer look at the crowd’s reaction or an argument on the bench. We’ve had a great reaction to it so far and it’s something we hope to build into our digital video offering more and more going forward.”
But Hindhaugh believes that good audio to support great images also plays a big part in the overall viewing experience.
“I think sound is a forgotten medium in broadcast. It’s been 10 years since 5.1 surround sound came out and everyone has spent the time since concentrating on picture,” he says.
“We know from our research that your viewing experience is enhanced dramatically by sound, so we’ve also been working closely with Dolby to deliver 360º Dolby Atmos sound in a live environment, to really bring the atmosphere of the game and the stadium into your home.
“With regards to innovation, it’s been one of the proudest things we’ve done. We’re the only broadcaster doing it right now, but I really hope more will follow suit. When you combine it with 4K HDR pictures and a VR offering on the side, it makes for a really fantastic, truly immersive experience.”
It certainly seems that home cinema has some big changes ahead of it over the next few years, but while the innovation that’s happening industrywide is striving to deliver new experiences we’ve never seen before, the idea at its core remains the same.
As Black explains: “Home cinema is simply about telling stories in the best way possible. It’s always been about creating an environment in which you can switch off from the outside world and enjoy what’s happening in front of you. Soon, that could also be what’s happening above, behind and to the side of you, too.”
TOP: Sony’s latest ultra-short throw projector can display a huge image from a very short distance…
ABOVE: …but at £20,000, the VPL-VZ1000ES doesn’t come cheap
ABOVE/TOP: HTC’s Vive now lets you view 180º and 360º VR videos on your headset
TOP: The big film studios are increasingly using VR in movies
BT added VR content for this year’s Champions League final